“You’re kind doesn’t just kill men. You murder their spirit. You strangle their last breath of hope and freedom so that you, the chosen few, can rule your slaves in ease and luxury.”
The 1940s were filled to the brim with wartime propaganda films. In 1942, the Invisible Man series decided to try its hand at aiding the war effort. What we get is an agent in enemy territory thriller that has a lot of potential but doesn’t quite life up to it.
Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) is the grandson of The Invisible Man‘s Jack Griffin. He’s running a printing shop under an assumed name in Manhattan when he’s visited by Lieutenant General Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) of the S.S. and Baron Ikito (played by the very German Peter Lorre) of Japan.
They pressure Frank to give up his grandfather’s invisibility formula. Frank refuses and manages to escape. The U.S. Government want Frank to hand over the formula, but he is reluctant until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following the bombing, Frank says he’ll release the formula but only if he is the one to use it. The U.S. agrees, and Frank is parachuted into German lines to retrieve a list of German and Japanese spies operating in the United States. This secret mission could have great ramifications on the entire war.
Aiding Frank is Maria Sorenson, a German espionage agent (played by Ilona Massey) with close ties to Stauffer and Gestapo Standartenführer Karl Heiser, Stauffer’s second-in-command played by J. Edward Bromberg.
Invisible Agent begins seriously and intensely. Frank is confronted in his shop and the ever creepy Peter Lorre threatens to use a paper cutter to slice off Frank’s fingers. It’s gripping and gruesome, with close-up shots of the cutter getting closer and close to Frank’s hand. You never see a drop of blood but the idea that a film from this era would suggest something so violent surprised me.
If the film that followed was as intense and nail-biting as the beginning, I would’ve been all over it. Probably not unexpectedly, things didn’t turn out that way. There are some other thrilling sequences, like when an old German coffin maker helping Frank is questioned by the SS, but Invisible Agent favors comedy over suspenseful spy work.
The comedy is usually there to mock the Nazis and make them out to be utter buffoons. I get why studios and audiences would want that during wartime, but it trivializes the movie’s drama and high-stakes.
One such scene of ridicule features Heiser and Maria having dinner while Frank causes problems for the Nazi agent. Frank eats and hides Heiser’s chicken leg, pops a champagne cork, spills some of the champagne on his clothes, makes him hit his nose with the food on his fork, and turns a table over, which pours its food and drink contents all over Heiser. None of this is funny, and it goes on for an unbearable eternity.
And that brings me to another point. Why is Frank doing this? He says he couldn’t stand a few of Heiser’s comments, but this mission is more important than some rude remarks.
You could say Frank’s actions are a sign the insanity inducing formula is effecting his brain. That side effect, however, is never mentioned in the movie. The only negative consequence of the concoction is random bouts of drowsiness meant to boost tension (Frank will fall asleep at inopportune times) but instead coming off as stupid and ridiculous.
Point is, I’m assuming Frank is in his right mind as he’s endangering his mission for some silly revenge antics. Maria is furious at Frank for what he does, but the reaction isn’t big enough for such a crucial mistake.
The film’s romance, Maria and Frank, also doesn’t work. Indeed, Maria seems to lust after Frank for no reason and their final kiss before the end-credits doesn’t feel earned. If you’re going to have a love story subplot, movie, give it chemistry and room to develop.
But I would prefer the romance be omitted from the film entirely. It isn’t needed. The movie’s time would be better spent on developing its main plot than some half-assed love story.
I get so upset about it because, while Hardwicke’s Strausser is rather a bore, Lorre’s Baron Ikito, although short and small in stature, is truly scary and intimidating. It’s undoubtedly a tribute to Lorre’s great skills as an actor that he can instill such menace and insanity in a character who ends up with little screen time. (I would appreciate, though, if Lorre at least attempted a Japanese accent. For most of the film, I thought he was supposed to be playing a German.)
I wanted to see the film that the opening scene promised. A movie that grabbed me and didn’t let go with suspenseful tasks in enemy territory. What I got was a story that was far too light and silly for me to give it a full-fledged endorsement. Instead, I’ll just say that it’s worth it for the three or four nicely done sequences that are far to few.